Insight & Article

How Digital Can Shine a Light on Independent Retailers

How Digital Can Shine a Light on Independent Retailers

May 13,2016 Posted by Libby Davies

The face of the high street is constantly changing to adopt trends that are reflective of the economic climate. Consumer confidence is currently at the highest level it has been since 2007, and as the economy slowly returns to pre-crash levels, the amount of real disposable income for the average household is predicted to grow by 2.3% by the end of 2016.  As consumers become more confident in their spending, data analysts forecast that the high street will see a rise in health food stores and coffee shops over a decline in pawnbrokers and mobile phone shops, indicating that consumers are prepared to spend more on non-essentials than they were five years ago.

Although this is good news for large chains, it is also good for independent retailers. The Telegraph recently reported that most shoppers, if given a choice, would prefer to see a high street where independent shops can rub shoulders with the big name outlets, preferring for their high streets to retain some individuality. In terms of competition, while the bigger chains may have huge budgets set aside for marketing strategies and the implementation of omnichannel experiences, independents also have a hugely valuable asset on their side:

“Where small retailers can make a big difference is knowing their customer. Big retailers will know what the national average wants, but that doesn’t always apply to every market. So small retailers can ask shoppers what they want and then deliver it with great service that sets them apart from a chain.”
– Professor Heiner Evanschitzky, Retail Management Expert.

The key for an independent retailer is differentiation. An independent clothes shop might not be able to compete with the likes of Primark or H&M on price, but they can specialise in great advice and items that are unique rather than mass-produced. An independent technology retailer might not be able to compete with PC World for scale, but their staff can provide a more thorough service through specialist knowledge and expertise. And so, there is opportunity for an independent to flourish in the current market, particularly when many shoppers today are openly showing their support for local businesses.

Small retailers also have the advantage of flexibility. They can be more responsive to changes in consumer demand; which can often be introspective of their local region. Not having to wait for permission to make changes to their store from a head office (which is likely to be in a completely different location) allows small businesses to keep pace with their customers in a way that larger retailers can sometimes find challenging. What is more, if a small store then makes use of technology favoured by larger outlets, whether that’s digital signage, in-store tablets or POS systems, they can directly compete. One of the biggest myths about implementing digital is that it is too expensive, and that only large chains can afford to utilise technology. It is often presumed that, due to a lack of funds, independents must remain in the dark ages of the pre-digital era.

This is simply not true.

The implementation of digital is often cheaper than many think – and the potential for return of investment is huge.

Investing in Digital

iPads and tablets are one of the most effective investments an independent retailer can make. In 2015, 31% of independents made the investment, and 46% also made use of wi-fi in their stores. Amongst many other benefits, one of the key things that a tablet can do to help an independent store is manage inventory through a Point of Sale system (POS). A POS system can automatically subtract items from an inventory list when a purchase is made, and so it can help business owners to optimise their inventory to stay ahead of the competition. It allows them to make sure that they are purchasing the right amount of stock, which can massively impact bottom line should they get it wrong. By making use of a POS system, they can anticipate what items are going to be the most popular in each season, and use the data stored on previous sales history to aid their decisions. These factors can all help an independent shop to save money and condense a previously time-consuming task into a more manageable and effective one, whilst staying ahead of the competition.

Social Media Matters

 Perhaps one of the most important digital solutions (and the least expensive – free, in fact!) is social media. Creating an online ‘voice’ for a store is very important, as it invites dialogue between the retailer and the customer, and encourages a positive relationship.  Large retailers often rely on social media to personalise their customers’ experience – but independents can use it to build upon existing personalisation. It is likely that a small business already has a relationship with some of their customers – particularly if they operate within a small town. But, even if a retailer does not directly know every customer, they still have a good understanding of local trends and what certain demographics in their region are after. Making use of this specialist, local knowledge and incorporating it within a social media strategy can produce huge results for a business.

  • 29% of independents use Facebook, 28% use Twitter and 24% use Instagram.
  • 54% said they are active on social media sites daily.
  • 37% said they saw ‘brand awareness’ as the key aim.

“Social media is becoming more and more important because we are embracing it so much as a society, including those people that were slow on the uptake a few years ago and perhaps saw it as just a fad. If you want to be on people’s digital radars, then you have no option but to be on those channels.”Jo Davies, Independent Retailer

Facebook is the most popular platform, closely followed by Twitter and Instagram. All of these sites are a great way to transfer digital traffic into physical footfall, using exclusive discounts, offers or incentives to visit the store that day.  Social media can also be used to gather market research, for instance asking customers what items they would most like to see before committing to ordering stock. 

The advantages of social media can also be further utilised through the installation of digital signage. Displaying content in real-time from the store’s social media accounts encourages customers to engage in conversation, as they will be more likely to participate if they can see their posts are being displayed. Subtly encouraging happy customers to tweet about their experience is a fantastic way to attain positive publicity, as there is no limit to the amount of users that one tweet can reach. Digital signage can also be used to display real product reviews of the most popular items, or promotional content from the brands that the independent retailer stocks. It is an easy and effective way to help a small business acclimatise to the world of omnichannel retail, and to match the strategies of those used by retailers with vastly bigger budgets.

The Best of Both Channels

  • 44% of independent retailers have transactional websites, more than 30% of which are mobile optimised, and 20% are responsive.

A recent study by Drapers found that 65% of independent retailers have focused their energies into developing their online presence as well as their physical stores. The initial investment into a website that is transactional, responsive and mobile-optimised may seem daunting at first, but the return of investment is huge. Menswear in particular expects to see large growth this year, with 54% of independents in this industry saying they believe their online sales will grow by more than 20%. It is not only menswear that can benefit from selling online, however. Many smaller stores that are constrained by limited space can branch out online and sell a wider range of items that they might otherwise not have been able to, increasing their revenue in the process. 

 “You cannot sit still. It is so important to be responsive, and mobile optimised. In the last six months, the swing towards mobile has been colossal. Before we saw traffic going up, but people were completing purchases on another device. Now they are buying direct from their phones.” Independent Retailer

Selling online can also open many other options to help compete with bigger players, such as a click and collect service. Providing a flexible collection service not only helps to blend the independent experience with an omnichannel one, but also brings the customers into store, increasing the opportunity for cross-sells whilst they are there. 

Though it is good that more and more retailers are starting to blend their physical stores with digital, technology moves so fast that a stand alone website can soon look outdated
. 92% of independent retailers do not have their own app, and it is here that Drapers recommends small businesses should invest their marketing budget, too. Apps are considered as the way forward, and as it is important for retailers to stay ahead of their competition, the creation of an app will allow them to future-proof themselves against ever-changing consumer demands; as well as the ability to integrate other technologies such as iBeacon and digital signage.

Looking to the Future

There are many ways that independents can use technology to stay ahead, and it is possible for them to compete with big retailers when they maximise the potential that digital solutions can offer. Jack Hardy, the owner of an independent clothes store in London, says that the successful retailers of the future will be the ones that bring their online and offline systems together to have a single view of their customers, across all channels. He explains that this is because small businesses can then provide many of the services usually associated with bigger outlets, such as location-based rewards sent to a customer’s mobile when they are nearby.


In terms of the year ahead, the future is looking very bright for independents. 44% are confident that their business will grow; with a further 27% adding business is going “really well.” 51% expect to see their biggest sales growth in 2016, and only 9% are expecting the year to be tough. There are also some positive statistics regarding planned investments for technology: 17% plan to launch or re-launch a website, 11% plan to invest in stock management and 10% plan to launch a responsive website. Ultimately, technology can help independents to shine at what they do best: customer service. Digital solutions allow independents to make the experience they provide for their customers second to none, and in the retail industry, exceptional customer experience is always a guaranteed winner.



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